Feature Article – Deception

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Friday, December 5th – In his first article for StarCityGames.com, UK National Champion Jonathan Randle looks at the use and abuse of deception in Magic. Going beyond the realm of the Jedi Mind Trick, Jonathan shows us that, sometimes, the wrong play might just be the right one…

This article intends to explore one of the key aspects of deception, namely ‘misdirection.’

Misdirection — the act of distracting; drawing someone’s attention away from something

Magic is a game and, like any game, it has a set of rules. The actions of its players (you and me) are limited to within the boundaries of these rules. The components (cards) of this game do specialised actions, and each interacts with the others, creating intricate and often complex situations which require challenging thoughts by the player to successfully navigate themselves to achieve the ultimate goal of winning. However, it is usually the case in this game that a practised player will already know what to do with each card, in each situation, thus creating a more mechanical and technical approach to the game. Everybody knows that you should Shock their first turn Birds of Paradise; that’s common sense, right? The cards play themselves and we, the players, become mere puppeteers simply going through the motions. When it comes time to play against technical masters such as Nakamura, Saito, LSV, Thompson, Wafo-Tapa, or Levy, our task becomes extremely difficult as they will not falter and will be in total control of their play. In addition to playing technically perfect, these kinds of players also have other weapons in their arsenal that they can draw upon if required, weapons such as vast experience, intuition, instinct, knowledge of mathematics, psychology, and deep strategic understanding. So how does one create any sort of edge when playing this caliber of player? How does one create a slight advantage beyond the power level of their cards when playing against any opponent? One way is misdirection.

It must be a cliché by now, but the eternal words of Magic perennial Sun Tzu still (and will always) ring true.

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will fight without danger in battles. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

Let me try and put this in Magic terms. Perfect knowledge of yourself would mean knowing every correct play and every card that you will draw in advance. This obviously isn’t possible, but one can reach perfection within the possible limits. Perfect knowledge of your opponent would mean knowing every play that they will make and every card that they will draw in advance. This equally is not possible but again one can endeavor to read their opponents play as best as possible within its limits. If one acquired perfect knowledge in this respect, they would surely win almost every game they played.

If one only knew their own play, and played perfectly but without knowledge of what one’s opponents would do, then it is reasonable to expect to win and lose. Lastly, if one had no knowledge of their own play or their opponents and, due to not knowing how to compete correctly, made many mistakes, then that player would always be in danger of losing.

So where does misdirection come in?

Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Let’s apply Sun Tzu’s levels to your enemy. Now you are the opponent, and they will try and acquire perfect knowledge of you. This you must fight, this is a battleground that you must shroud in fog so that they find it difficult to reach Tzu’s highest level of masterful knowledge. You must try to make them question their own thoughts, create doubts in their mind, cracks in their ‘knowledge.’ Even when they are right, and they do know what you are planning to do, your goal is to craft uncertainty, hesitation, reservation, and suspicion.

In Magic, we should know our best path to victory. Whether it be attacking with creatures and burning theirs, or by saving our burn spells to throw directly at their life total. We should also know your opponents best path to victory, so you could save your counterspells for their creatures and let their burn resolve, or let their creatures resolve and counter their burn. So applying misdirection we should seek to lead our opponent down a trail, a train of thought, into believing that what our, or indeed their, route to victory is in fact not the true path.

This is achievable by telegraph. Players telegraph moves all the time. For example, your opponent is playing Fae and you are playing Doran. They play a first turn Island. You play your Forest and Birds of Paradise. They then play a Sunken Ruins and pass the turn. You now know that they a) don’t have an Agony Warp and b) either don’t have Bitterblossom, or they do but have a Remove Soul. After all, would you expect them to have Agony Warp and/or Bitterblossom but no counterspell?

Let’s take another example. You are playing Mugabe Red and they are playing Cruel Control. You cast your first Demigod of Revenge with, say, four cards left in hand. Your opponent has a full grip of cards but is low on life, and they let it resolve. Why do you think that is? Condemn. Alternatively, they counterspell it… so they must not have Condemn, right? These are very simple examples, and there may be other factors involved, but I hope you get the idea. Every player, on some level or another, both telegraphs moves themselves and also reads opponents’ messages.

I remember hearing the great Johan Cruyff say that a player (a football / soccer player) who excels at dribbling should pass the ball nine times out of ten. This is so that the other team comes to expect a pass, leaving them open when that player decides to dribble instead. The power of misdirection outweighs the power of utilizing that player’s specific ability. To put it another way, you can get more from that player by using him less! An important point to take from this is that a series of telegraphed, predictable moves, where you encourage your enemy to get the ‘read on you,’ can assist your future trap when you finally do something that is now ‘unpredictable.’

Let’s apply another element of Cruyff’s thoughts to our beloved game. A very simple example is land. What land does best is tap for mana. Later in the game, when you already have enough mana to comfortably cast any spell(s) you may have, then land can take on a different role. I’m sure you already know what I’m about to say. You keep the land in your hand. I have played countless games where I have either won or at least stalled the game several turns, thereby giving myself a chance of winning, by keeping land in my hand. I’m sure you have too. This is a form of misdirection similar to bluffing, however straightforward it may be. Cards in hand detract from your opponent’s ‘perfect knowledge.’

We all know that this is quite obvious, so let’s try and take it a step further. Your opponent is playing Kithkin, and you are playing Mana Ramp. He casts a Knight of the Meadowgrain and a Goldmeadow Stalwart. You know from the cards in your hand that you could lose this game very, very quickly if they play out the rest of their creatures. You have no Firespout to stop them. Would you consider not playing your Forest, and acting as though you are just waiting for that third land? It may well be the wrong move and cost you in the long term, but it could also buy you enough time to draw an answer, if your opponent decides to hold back and only commit his two creatures because he suspects that you have a Firespout but can’t cast it. Whereas if you did play your Forest, but didn’t Firespout, then it may send the message that you don’t have an answer. Should your opponent read you for a Firespout and decide that he should play it cautiously, then you have ‘created a fictional, imaginary Wrath.‘ In effect you have turned that Forest in your hand into a Spout. In their mind, you have the Firespout. That means that you now have greater knowledge of them. You have knowledge of their nature, of their thinking, and of their plan.

I’m not sure what the right play is, as your opponent may see the lack of land as a sign to go for the throat, so you would have to assess them and try to gauge what kind of player they are (which brings us back to Tzu). The point is that there are always ways to try to mislead your opponent, and these plays always have some value.

You could look at this example another way. Let’s say that you do have the Spout and land, but want to draw out more creatures from their hand first because you think they are the type of player who will try to take advantage of your lack of mana, so again, you decline from playing your third land drop. Not playing that land is perhaps the wrong play, but sometimes you may actually want to make the ‘wrong’ play.

A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.

A clear ‘wrong play’ that I often like to employ is a bad block. You know the situations where your opponent attacks with a 1/1 and you only have a 3/3? He is either bluffing you or has a Giant Growth. Chances are that he has the pump effect. Being clever, you decline to block. This would be the right play. But once, just once in a match, and preferably early on, you may want to make the block. Sure enough, he Giant Growths and you lose your superior creature. It is a fairly insignificant sacrifice. A famous poker player said that sometimes you have to make a bad call just to encourage the other guy to think twice before trying to bluff in the future. The same applies here. After making this block, it would be unlikely that they will try to bluff some extra damage in at anytime later in the match.

In Magic, sacrifices must be made. Sometimes these sacrifices are very clear, i.e. chump blocking, trading card advantage for tempo gains, trading life points for board control. The same principle applies to misdirection. Sometimes it may well be worthwhile to sacrifice something, without any immediate or intrinsic gain, purely to distract and direct your opponent away from your true intentions and true abilities. You may want to Shock a Tidehollow Sculler with its trigger on the stack simply to demonstrate that you don’t understand how the rules work. Making your opponent think that they are a superior player only further clouds their understanding of you and of your capabilities. This isn’t feigning weakness, this is demonstrating it and putting it on a plate for all to see. You may not even recognize the advantage that you gain from this kind of sacrifice, but again the purpose is to help ensure that your opponent does not know you. Perhaps later in the match he may rely on your lack of comprehension for the rules to gain another advantage, or make loose plays as he considers you weak opposition.

I want to emphasize here that you should only use these methods sparingly, and only when the cost of the sacrifice is minimal enough that the potential value gained will outweigh it. Don’t risk losing for the sake of potential gains.

One of the keys to misdirection is knowing when to be subtle and when to be blatant. Subtly ‘reading’ cards in your hand before glancing at graveyards, or tapping lands in a certain (or uncertain) way, or hesitating before attacking… all examples of the numerous methods that can create false suspicions in your adversary’s mind. On the other hand, being blatant about these kinds of maneuvers can create false certainties in their thinking too.

I feel it important at this point to stress firmly that these methods of misdirection are not unethical. I would never, ever condone cheating (which is the lowest and most base form of playing), nor are these methods ‘Jedi mind tricks.’ You are not verbally convincing an opponent to make a mistake, nor are you engaging in confusing conversation in the hope of throwing them off their game. Misdirection in the sense that I use it here simply means making tactical moves that create uncertainty in your opponent’s understanding of the game state. The game should be played straight up.

I’ll finish with a three more famous quotes. The first, leaving any personal opinion on the man aside, comes from Donald Rumsfeld.

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Let’s break this down and relate it to Magic.

The known knowns: cards in our hand, cards in our deck, cards in play.
The known unknowns: cards in opponent’s hand, the next card in our library, cards in opponents deck (to an extent this one overlaps with the known knowns), skill level of the opponent.
The unknown unknowns: these are unknown.

Applying misdirection changes the quantitative dimensions of this list. If we can create the impression of having a particular card in hand, which in fact we don’t, then one’s opponent’s ‘known knowns’ now includes that card in your hand. Your ‘known knowns’ now includes an opponent that thinks that you have that card in your hand. Making bad plays that have only minimal cost pushes your skill level into the ‘known knowns’ in the eyes of your foe, which again, in turn becomes a ‘known known’ that they have a false impression of you. Effectively, you have created knowledge. You have created new ‘known knowns’ by misleading your enemy. You have creatio ex nihilo.

The second is by the French philosopher Jean- Paul Sartre.

In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.

The same is true in Magic: the Gathering, but don’t simply let the cards be the complications. You are the player, the manager, the master. You must be the presence that complicates the existence and reality of the game.

Third, I’ll return to our friend Sun Tzu.

All warfare is based on deception.

If you can know what they know, and they don’t know what you know, yet also they don’t know that you know what they know, then you have your edge.

Easier said than done, but striving for improvement always is.